What is the role of arbitrariness in language

Authors Avatar

What is the role of arbitrariness in language

To discuss arbitrariness we must first define what exactly we mean.  In order for human communication to take place, humans must, ordinarily, converse among themselves by producing sounds.  Over the aeons we have assigned meanings to the groupings of sounds we call words.  We had to do this because, for instance, there was no other way of warning a member of your tribe there was a sabre-toothed tiger behind other than actually saying “Cuidado, a um tigre-dente-de-sabre atras de si!”  I have used I Portuguese model just to illustrate that the words themselves do not have to be the same, or understandable for us, just that the tribesman needs to be able to understand.  In the example I have just given, the words “tigre-dente-de-sabre” mean the same as a “sabre tooth tiger” in English.  These words are the sign or signifier.  If you were to travel back in time and ask a tribesman were you could find a sabre-toothed tiger he would have absolutely no idea what you were talking about.  That is because the words have no connection to the animal in question.  How then are the words related to the animal, or signified?  According to Saussure, all signs are arbitrary, and are wholly conventional associations that have been determined by social rule, or semiotic convention.  At first you could argue that this absolute statement is flawed, especially in relation to onomatopoeic words.  However, if you look in detail at specific languages you will see some differences.  For example, in English a cock’s crowing is represented in speech and writing as cock-a-doodle-doo, whilst in French it is cocorico.  In my humble opinion it is unlikely that cock’s in Britain and France sound different. 

Join now!


It can also be said that noises have no significance in and of themselves.  A noise is just a noise, just as a piece of wood hitting another is just that, one piece of wood hitting another.  However, when a judge hits his mallet against his desk it is accepted he is calling the court to order.  How then are these sounds assigned meaning?  Unlike in Mark Twain’s “Diaries of Eve” someone has not gone around naming animals and objects for us.  It has been argued that words are assigned meaning “by virtue of systematic differences between them” and ...

This is a preview of the whole essay